Officially Wanked

A brief history of hacktivism

by Miles Cooper

With three billion Internet users worldwide, humanity is at its most interconnected point. Try to distance yourself from this world, and you will ultimately be disappointed in your efforts. For most people, every financial transaction, Internet search or e-mail is recorded, stored and sometimes screened. Trying to escape this mass-recording is possible but not practical. Not using the Internet, the largest repository of knowledge ever compiled, would be a disservice, a denial to yourself of so much free knowledge. So what to do? How do we preserve our anonymity without sacrificing access to something which many consider a human right? It takes in large part initiative, but don’t fret, the tools are available for free. You might think that you don’t have any computer science skills, but don’t let that stop you. Most of these tools have manuals and communities behind them that are more than willing to help you reclaim your privacy. 

The hacking movement began largely between Bell Telephone Co. and MIT in the 1960s and ’70s. Around this time, if you played the right frequency before making a call, you could trick the telephone company’s computer system into letting you make long-distance calls for free. This was called “phreaking” (Phone Freaking). At the same time, MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club (Model Train Club) was hacking circuit boards to create life-like and intricate train models. Gradually they began making the move towards computers, hacking more complex circuit boards. Soon, messing around with circuit boards became obsessive; hacking model train circuit boards evolved into hacking the MIT computer systems. 

“It was the predictability and controllability of a computer system—as opposed to the hopelessly random problems in a human relationship—which made hacking particularly attractive. But an even weightier factor was the hackers’ impression that computing was much more important than getting involved in a romantic relationship. It was a question of priorities,” said Johnny Berry from Infoworld Magazine.

These MIT train enthusiasts began to lay the groundwork for a sort of Hammurabi’s Code for the Internet, for hacking and for the current struggle on the Internet. Despite the lack of face-to-face interaction, an unofficial unwritten “Hacker Code” developed between them: All information should be free. Distrust authority. Promote decentralization. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not on bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position. 

These first hackers believed that one could create art, beauty, knowledge and freedom on a computer. Computers could change humanity for the better. As time progressed, many of these hackers entered the work force. Although their code could not survive unadulterated in the real world, many of them hung onto core tenants such as freedom of information, distrust of authority and that demonstrated ability speaks louder than class, race or position. 

Hacking was born, and it was not about to be stopped. In 1989 the computers at NASA and U.S. Energy Department were hacked and all the computer lock in screens displayed this message:

This was the second computer “worm” ever created–the first worm was an attempt by the son of the NSA chief cryptographer to approximate the size of the Internet–and it had a clear political motive and allegedly traced to Melbourne, Australia, at the time a hotbed of anti-nuclear sentiment. This is arguably the first instance of “hacktivism,” or a hack used as a political tool, a weapon, a way to achieve change.

The terms “Hacktivist” and “Hacktivism” appear from a hacker collective named The Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc). cDc created the terms in 1996 to describe people who had a political agenda for their digital infiltrations. The terminology divided the hacktivist from those hacking simply for gain or even sport. Other Hacktivist causes included a mass attack on the Indonesian government to highlight the conditions in East Timor, a series of hacks for those murdered in the Acteal Massacre in Mexico by Ernesto Zedillo and an assault on the United Kingdom’s Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which outlawed outdoor music with “a succession of repetitive beats.” In the retaliation against UK Prime Minister John Major’s government, the hackers implemented a technique called DDoS. It was the first use of DDoS, which is a common tactic used by hackers today. 

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks the target servers with thousands to millions of page requests, equivalent to hitting refresh thousands of times at once. This overloads and crashes the site. A DDoS doesn’t destroy the target sites and information is not stolen, but the volume of requests causes them to shut down, thus preventing anyone from gaining access. DDoS attacks can leave a website unusable for weeks, thus silencing the target. 

DDoS is a dangerous weapon and has allowed many otherwise powerless people to become powerful, turning regular citizens into vigilantes. The danger of this “vigilantism” is somewhat obvious. The tendency of people to get carried away is sometimes painfully evident; what could initially start as a well thought-out protest can easily become a witch-hunt in which anyone can be left out to hang. Does vigilantism have its place? It can be argued that since the power difference between those in charge and those not is so vast that computers are the great equalizer. Many of these vigilantes see a government which enacts little change and cares not for its citizens, but for the interest of those in the oligarchy. By hacking the government, these individuals are showing that the government is not invincible. By distributing invaluable information to the public, they are defying the government’s immense power over an unassuming population. Knowledge is freedom, ignorance is slavery. By gaining access to the secrets of corrupt organizations, public officials and the like, we emancipate ourselves. To argue that the dangers outweigh the benefits of this vigilantism is nonsensical. I contend that the way in which some of these whistleblowers and hackers go about their political agenda could be better, but the benefit of this knowledge reaching the populous is invaluable. 

Those participating in the highest levels of the government are afraid of hacking, and rightly so. Thoughts, once formed, cannot be destroyed, opinions in particular. The people operating at the highest echelons of government are quite cognizant of this fact and work to shape public opinion rather than enact real progress. Tangible things like buildings, weapons and lives are all wounds that for the most part can be recouped. Non-tangible things like negative opinions and thoughts of dissidence are another animal entirely; these are wounds that take much longer to recover from. The fact that the government has knowledge the public isn’t privy to allows them to frame the conversation about issues ranging from the environment to war. Mistakes, acts of arrogance that ended poorly for the government, can be removed from the public eye. The government can maintain a veneer of impenetrability and righteousness. This is something that the current administration and future administrations will be highly aware of. To control all the channels of knowledge is to have complete control. Many Internet users have realized this, and in recent years there has been an influx of the Internet becoming the platform in which discussion on politics, civil rights and more takes place. 

Since 2010, we have witnessed a return to hacking with the Arab spring, the shootings of unarmed black men, Occupy Wall Street and the Snowden NSA revelations all increasing hacking. As of now, the conversation online has shifted towards the debate of Net Neutrality and Internet privacy. While there have been many wins for the grassroots hacker movements, the way governments have mobilized on the Internet with recruiting hackers and utilizing them to create an infrastructure of surveillance globally has dwarfed the actions of hacker groups. Hacker groups’ role on the Internet is more of an agitator and conversation shaper, while the government, particularly the NSA, has taken on the role of the sort of hacking you see in movies, with state-of-the-art technology and the ability to rapidly hack anyone.  The vigilantism is more like the superhero’s from “ Kickass, ” where only few can enact real change but the vast majority are there as symbols of rebellion. What this very recent history does tell us, though, is that anyone can be the voice of dissidence. All it takes is a willingness to take the first step.